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Bucharest's NATO Hopes Falter

Romanian plans to join NATO are threatened by the government's inability to come up with the funds to reform its armed forces.
By Marian Chiriac

Bucharest's bid to join NATO is being undermined by the slow pace of its military reform programme. The Western alliance has called for an overhaul of the country's armed forces as a precondition for membership. While Bucharest has made some progress, it appears to lack the funds to complete the task.


The Romanian military is still handicapped by the country's Warsaw Pact past, inheriting a lumbering and inefficient machine in dire need of downsizing, upgrading and restructuring. The government is now pushing ahead with several reform programmes, including a radical reduction of the officer corps and an end to conscription by the end of the decade.


"In order to meet our national defence needs, Romania must build a credible defence capability, and take an active part in European and Euro-Atlantic security and defence structures," said Defence Minister Mircea Ioan Pascu.


To help achieve this, defence spending was increased by a third this year to $788 million. But Pascu is concerned that the country still will not find enough cash to meet the huge challenge of wholesale reform.


The United States, United Kingdom, France and Israel have funded some training programmes and helped to upgrade military equipment. But this is a fraction of what is actually required. Pascu admitted back in March that the military has had less than half of the $10,000 dollars per soldier per year which "any self-respecting force" had to spend. With the increase in the military budget this year, that figure should increase to $8,000. But few believe this will be enough.


The coordinator for reform and NATO integration, Colonel Florea Bostina-Bratu, acknowledged that the armed forces have a long way to go before Bucharest can seriously be considered for membership of the alliance. There are still significant problems right across the armed services.


General Mihai Popescu, commander-in-chief of the Romanian military, remarked recently that, last year, pilots were only able to carry out 13 per cent of planned training flights, and that, as a result, 70 per cent of flyers had not clocked up enough hours to be considered operational.


Popescu also described the state of the navy as "precarious". He said its capabilities had suffered because of the age of its equipment, adding that its ships had not even left port last year because of a shortage of fuel.


Another problem is low morale among the rank-and-file. Many conscripts have committed suicide. Last week a soldier killed himself, apparently after being bullied.


"Daily physical abuse is common in the Romanian army, and this killed my son," said the soldier's mother.


Conditions in the barracks are dismal. So are the meagre rations doled out to conscripts. Troops resort to theft and smuggling. Late last month, a manhunt was launched for a soldier who deserted following an investigation into the smuggling of oil from a refinery he was supposed to be guarding.


The military is planning to reduce the size of the standing army from 320,000 to 136,000 soldiers. But it has insufficient funds to cater for the needs of those who are decommissioned. The only funding made available so far is a $3 million World Bank package for a business retraining programme.


"How are you going to divide half a million dollars [the first tranche of the loan] between the 4,000 people due to leave the army this year?" inquired journalist Bogdan Chireac. Besides, he asked, how do you turn ex-army officers into successful entrepreneurs? The prospect of unemployment or underemployement rates high among troops' fears. "If I could find a well-paid job, I'd leave the army without any regret," said a sergeant.


Marian Chiriac is an independent journalist in Bucharest.


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